Challenges of Curating Today
A Conversation between Lara Pan and Filip Luyckx
‘Face to Face’ starts a new series in which ARTPULSE invites two art professionals to share their opinions about their practice in a totally free and ‘unplugged’ manner. For this first conversation we invited independent curators Serbian Lara Pan and Belgian Filip Luyckx, both based in Brussels.
Founder of the New Art Project, Lara Pan has curated several exciting exhibitions, such as ‘Pandora’s Sound Box’ at Performa (2009), and ‘Torre’ by Wim Delvoye at the Guggenheim Foundation in Venice (2009); Filip Luyckx has curated ‘Dream Extensions’ at SMAK, Gent (2003), and “Be a Star, Play a Model” (2010) at Sint-Lukasgalerie, Brussels, among others. Their conversation helps us to better understand the challenges, tensions, and process of free-lance curating today.
Filip Luyckx - The curatorial activity is very diverse nowadays. For the general public it is often confusing what the curatorship includes or implies. The way exhibitions and art events are conceived, presented, and organised influence the way contemporary art is experienced by the public. How you define yourself as a curator?
Lara Pan - When we look at the current worldwide political situation, and the way the art world exists within this situation, I think the role of curator today has to provide a dialogue or discuss the issues rather than being reduced to a keeper of a collection or an organizer of an exhibition. I am referring to the Anglo-American model which does not separate these two functions. If I mention the European model we will fill five pages for this answer. In the art world, things are changing extremely fast these days, and the job of curator is not immune to those changes. I believe that younger generations, with the aid of new technologies, will bring revolutionary changes to the work and role of the curator. The artwork itself is the leader which provides the inspiration and necessary energies that push us to continue this challenging process. Dealing with the notion of the past, present, and future is an inevitable task for a curator. Intuition is my favourite ‘weapon.’ It is important for me to know when I have to change the process or when to take a break. Also, we are sometimes sharing our visions of artists’ ideas; and in that case, the site and theme of the exhibition takes a primary position.
It is difficult to give a short answer to this question. A couple of months ago, Art Press dedicated more than ten pages of its February 2010 issue (Number 364) to an article titled ‘Thinking about Curators.’ I found this article amusing since it proves that the job of curator is an evolving process. The choice to be an independent curator was extremely difficult, but it allows me to keep a completely free approach to my artistic choices. The notion of freedom in art has become an obsessive factor for me. Freedom is of primary importance for an artist as it is for a curator. I have a conscience that is a utopian way of thinking, but reality is very different.
In the end I can say that I like to work hand in hand with my intuition, keeping my eyes wide open to the future.
F.L. - How do you deal with the tension between the personal vision and the expectations - or even the pressures - from eventual external instances?
L.P. - I like your question, but I cannot give a very serious answer. I think that the pressures and tension are omnipresent in our jobs. Whether you are independent or not, you are obliged to collaborate with different types of personalities and you cannot afford to act as you wish, because one out of control reaction can put your exhibition in jeopardy.
For a while, I was doing research about the addictions of professional gamblers and, as you know, gambling is more and more present around us. Some people gamble in the auction houses or at the art fairs, and some in the casinos. Adrenaline and stress are present in every profession related to art. I can be very inert and cold in front of big problems. Panicking does not lead me anywhere and I believe that I can always find the best solution to any problem. On the other hand, I can be extroverted and demanding because I have to exercise my stress somehow.
L.P. - I am often asked a variety of questions that relate to the idea or theme of an exhibition, and the choices of the artists and art works. I like to think about those activities as an esoteric experience and I do not like to share a lot of this with the public. I prefer to write about it, or to take notes for myself, and I sometimes have discussions with the artists. What is your point of view, and how do you deal with your choices and your exhibitions? Does the final decision depend on exterior factors, or do you manage to keep an integral independence when making selections for your exhibitions?
F.L. - The solo exhibitions are closely linked to the specificity of the individual artist. An artist’s work cannot be reduced to merely an illustration of a general theme, a medium, or a time spirit. Even in group exhibitions I try to respect each individual work as an original contribution to the theme. All works together should trigger a particular atmosphere and make the exhibition concept clear. The latter is in first instance the product of my intuition. But I don’t understand intuition as something irrational, or even magical. It’s the synthesis of any kind of life experience and knowledge.
Any information could be useful: observation of daily life, theories and levels of culture, etcetera. I do establish a link between several artistic practices, which embody a strong mental experience. The exhibition themes are not necessarily linked to personal life. Through art I experience a wide range of issues that in fact go beyond the personal, or even imply the opposite. Confrontational work questioning myself could be adopted later in my curatorial practice. I feel interested in the artistic paradoxes; a later exhibition could at first glance deny former stances. They represent other fragments of life, which are inherently paradoxical.
This process means that I start thematic exhibitions already with a few representative artists. Artist’s works are among the first receptacles of apparent mental switches in culture. While concentrating on a certain vision, I become aware that more artists could also be involved. Intuition is not an accidental process. At the stage of working out the exhibition, I am ready to clarify the concept to the public as much as possible. Any kind of further understanding is welcome; we should not be afraid to work out the rational analysis as far as possible. Of course, there always remains a level of aesthetical experience that goes beyond current interpretation.
INSTITUTIONAL VS. FREE-LANCE CURATING
L.P. - How would you define the differences among the curatorial practices between the institutional and the independent curator? Do you think that institutions in Europe cannot escape from their petty bourgeois existence of offering and then quickly closing any possible room for creative and, dare I say, ‘utopian’ thinking?
F.L. - Elaborating on an innovative program is quite difficult. Similar to artistic practices, any exhibition context is always unique and, at the same time, part of the global art world. The visionary factor is generally underestimated, because it’s an issue open to discussion and requiring insight from those evaluating. There are no well-defined norms for this evaluation. But finally in the contemporary field it turns all about vision. There is indeed no guarantee that a well-equipped institution should be more relevant for new developments than independent activities. However, I don’t consider the difference between independent and institutional a decisive factor. Favourable contexts exist within institutions; eclectic attitudes could only enforce institutions. Offering opportunities to independent curators with unusual ideas is generally appreciated by the public.
F.L. - How do you consider the evolution of the curatorial function in the next decade? What would you advise to young people with curatorial ambitions?
L.P. - I start to underestimate the importance of the curatorial functions. I believe that curators should be hand in hand with artists and they have to anticipate together the processes of the global changes. We are assisting a slow ending of democracy, the transitions of the Eastern European countries from post-communism to capitalism– a global eclipse of politics. Curatorial function of the next decade should be more human, more art-loving, more inspired by the beauty or ugliness, but less inspired by theories… On the other hand, my only advice to the young curators is to be open to the changes that surround us; to be receptive and honest in their choices. No concessions. Most important advice is respect the art.
L.P. - What is your perception about the autonomy of art these days and the autonomy of art during the post-modern era?
F.L. - I think that the artistic creativity is disposing of more freedom than ever, even if the current situation looks far from ideal. After a century of modernism and post-modernism, the way we perceive art has been completely broken open. Informing, travelling, and communicating go beyond limits. Otherwise, I also perceive a tendency to question individual positioning on the art scene, as well for artists as curators. There is a tendency in Europe to motivate art through vague collective decisions. I think this is a wrong perception of the democratic involvement. The personal freedom is devaluated, and the large community remains still outside the spectacle. There can of course be strong reasons to involve other people, not sociological reasons of justifying art budgets in this way. New positions are often personal opinions and don’t care about artificial consensus. The personal view doesn’t exclude all collaboration and exchange with the large public; it’s just the opposite– the responsibilities are clearly defined. The synthesis of all creative individuals often results in more creativity than the compromises within selective committees.
L.P. - How do you see the role of institutions changing in the future, as well as non-profit spaces? Does it have an impact on your choices of exhibitions?
F.L. - In general, it is desirable that there is a wide variety of institutions working within different visions, media, and action fields. Why can’t institutions mainly work through the virtual world, artist productions, distribution, theory, etcetera? The problem is often that they concentrate so much on themselves and offer few opportunities to independent curators, writers, and intellectuals. Also, talented young people of any generation should find opportunities to get practical experience in art. It’s a kind of facility that universities, art colleges, and the Internet cannot provide.
CRISIS AND NEW IDEAS
F.L. - The current financial crisis is also affecting the art world. The uncertain constellation could also offer opportunities to test new ideas. Do you have one or more specific projects in mind that have been stimulated by the ‘economy of means’?
L.P. - I am aware of a certain necessity to deal these days with projects that could be referred to through an ‘economy of means’. During my last stay in Belgrade, I had several discussions with artists and curators as we are all trying to define the global scale of the existing art model in the former Yugoslavia. One artist, Mane Sakic, mentioned that art from the former Yugoslavia is mostly represented if it stands for leftist ideas. However, by doing so, there is no way of finding new avenues towards an encounter with a dialogue, and that is exactly why the old inherited conditions are being perpetuated. There are some agents in the field in Belgrade, for example, who are standing for a global paradigm acting as transnational citizens and creators independent of old stereotypes and relations. One such person is curator Maja Ciric, with whom I will probably collaborate on her project ‘Nothing Else to Trade’ for the new venue International Test Site Z, an interesting venue located on the outskirts of Belgrade (http://www.its-Z1.org).
I have been working with the young artist Bogomir Doringer for almost a year now as curator and consultant for his project, which is related to the transformation of ‘economy of means’ within the militarized human body. This transformation is manifested through health problems, specifically post-traumatic stress-related symptoms acquired through wartime service. The artist explains that the body is exposed to chemicals and materials, themselves being fabrications based on other technologies, which transform their surrounding natural environment. His project is bringing out the inner physiological transformations of an individual who may represent a group. As a result, these external factors eventually create a biological mutation through their own economy of means.
F.L. - You are originally from Serbia, a country with less artistic infrastructures. You did projects in other so-called peripheral art countries– former communist world, Islamic world, Africa, etcetera). How might America and Europe contribute to artistic freedom and international involvement in those regions without being paternalistic? What can the West learn from them?
L.P. - I must mention that I grew up in the country formerly known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Despite communism, the art scene in the seventies and eighties was very autonomous, authentic, and influential at the European level. It was a kind of underground scene. Some of the better-known Eastern European cultural figures come from the former Yugoslavia: Marina Abramovi?, Braco Dimitrijevi?, and Slavoj Žižek, among others.
Cultural and artistic chaos started occurring during the nineties, particularly in Serbia. The younger generation growing up during the Cold War era was very talented. It is difficult for me to compare the transformations between the generations within Eastern and Western Europe. I see that young artists from the more developed European countries aspire to follow the career model of successful artists from the U.S., and vice versa. The copycat effect is not yet very present in the former Yugoslavian region. Younger generations have big hopes that European countries, as well as the U.S., can help to harmonize a cultural exchange. We need more international guests, workshops, panel discussions, etcetera. I don’t believe that importing foreign cultures can be considered a form of the ‘paternalist syndrome’ of the Western world. I also don’t believe that artists can be under the influence of any force except art itself. I will leave the paternalism to politics.
L.P. - Let’s try to forget the economic crisis for a moment: tell me more about your upcoming curatorial plans.
F.L. - Currently I am working off of two motivating ideas. Nowadays, China is a big focus of interest. We often forget that the West’s relationship with China is an old history. Europe has cultivated an exotic image of China that has been constantly refined since Marco Polo. The East India companies exchanged the gold and silver of Latin America for a mass of exotic objects. Enlightenment would not have been the same without Chinese input. Since modernism and Maoism ‘chinoiseries’ felt in discredit, only recently has there been a renewed interest for them in art. ‘Global Chinoiseries and China’ intends to integrate contemporary art in historical ‘chinoiseries’ settings. The Western view on China’s changing role will be analysed, together with the new role ceramics play in the work of contemporary artists.
A second project concerns a different aspect of the global. The international contemporary art is less global than its pretensions. Large parts of the world’s population are totally outside this history and discourse. I focus on Azerbaijan, an interesting country at the outskirts of Europe. I will examine how to establish a cultural exchange between such different cultural traditions, in order to find recognition at both sides of the spectrum.